Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Casinowealth of Massachusetts

Ah, yes. The fantasy of sticking 75 cents into a 36-inch high aluminum and glass box and walking away with enough money to never have to work again.

The fun of getting plied with free liquor by a redhead in a short dress while winning a few thousand dollars playing blackjack at a table full of laughing, happy people on a Saturday night.

New shops. Restaurants. Tourists. Surging state revenues. Lower property tax bills. Hundreds of good head-of-household jobs in construction, hospitality management, casino operations, washroom attending. Well, not so much the last one, but you get my point. This is the promise of casino resorts opening here in the Commonwealth.

But you are unlikely to see it happen in Massachusetts. Too many people--our own State Rep Dan Bosley foremost among them--are against it.

This is hardly the first time Rep. Bosley has stated his position on the issue. It comes as no surprise. But I disagree with the way Dan states his case against casino gambling: quoting studies and the like, as though this were some sort of debate team exercise, and alleging that this type of research is somehow canonical in its predictive value that casinos become sociological disasters. Or that any group anywhere couldn't fund up a study that supposedly uses the scientific method to fortify their position.

The dark spectres loom large and scary. Gambling addiction. Crime. Corruption. Greedy casino operators keeping all the money for themselves. Good ol' boys in smoke-filled rooms doling out contracts to their robber baron buddies. The giant sucking sound of money leaving the pockets of people who can least afford to lose it. The tremendous social and economic cost of casinos far outweigh their benefits, we're told. The glittering facade has a sticky black dark side, says our legislative delegation, a sentiment echoed by a tidal wave of values voters. Think about that odd conglomeration of nanny-staters and Bible-thumpers brought together as one.

But let's talk about the truth, if there can even be such a thing when attempting to predict the future. Truth usually lies somewhere in between ideological poles, an indeterminate distance from two opposing camps trying to shout each other down selling contradictory bills of goods.

I'm not going to claim I know what's going to happen if they stick a casino in New Ashford, Chicopee, Charlemont, or in the Clark Biscuit building on Ashland Street. Nobody does. THAT'S the truth, folks.

I'm not saying that it might not end up being something totally regrettable--but one thing I don't see are casinos closing once they open. The market speaks pretty loudly about this, and consumer choice is--or should be, I think--a legitimate political driving force.

There are legitimate concerns on the opposition side. Nobody's on record as wanting more crime, corruption, or poverty, and it's no stretch to see how a casino would encourage those sorts of societal ills. But say you put it about a mile off a main road down a long driveway, so people have to drive to get there, but so that they have to drive THROUGH somewhere to get to it. Do that, and you're eliminating loitering around existing business, providing a secure perimeter to minimize personal and automobile related crimes, and driving traffic at least past local attractions. This is Foxwoods' and Mohegan Sun's problem: make people drive interstate to back road to casino, and you're pretty much FORCING people to only go gambling. Look, casinos--like any destinations--are part of a complete tourism and hospitality strategy. Before New Orleans was decimated two years ago, Tara and I used to go to the Harrah's on Canal Street, but it's not like we stopped eating beignets at Cafe Du Monde. It's not the solution in and of itself, but it's closer to the solution than doing nothing, or funding yet another study.

If you're writing casino legislation from scratch, as we would be here, cut the state and local cops and courts in on a guaranteed, audited portion of revenue. Set up a Nevada-style Gaming Commission with some serious teeth. You've now created four or five dozen legitimate government jobs directly funded by the gambling people are doing anyway, and you're funding the law enforcement that we hear will be needed for the incipient crime wave that accompanies legalized gambling.

And one more thing: relax on the moralizing. Please. The Commonwealth already makes money from gambling, liquor, and tobacco. Look: people smoke, drink, and bet on stuff. It looks really silly to be collecting money with one hand and wagging a finger with the other. Sure, as a society you may not want to encourage that behavior, but it's already state-sanctioned. Didn't I see a Lottery commercial the other day?

Ironically, if they built a casino near here, I wouldn't go too much, myself. I'm too cheap and know finite mathematics too well to enjoy gambling much. But that doesn't mean I can't recognize that giving some people what they want isn't always a bad thing for everybody else.

Too bad we won't get the chance to see.